Johann Sebastian Bach, Preludes, Fantasies & Fugues: Peter Sykes, clavichord
Available from www.ravencd.com
Clavichord by Johann Christoph Georg Schiedmayer, Neustadt an der Aisch, 1789
This is an admirable and hugely enjoyable recording, with an additional layer of interest for us through its link to the work of Morris Steinert, an important nineteenth-century advocate of the clavichord. In his judiciously chosen programme, Peter Sykes, President of the Boston Clavichord Society, demonstrates his own sensitivity as a clavichordist and the absolute suitability of a clavichord as an ideal medium for these works. From the first notes of BWV 998, the E flat Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, we are drawn into a world of thoughtful fantasy, beautifully drawn lines, and clarity of musical logic and expression in contrapuntal textures. The playing is full of shades of tone and colour, elegant shaping of phrase, sentence and paragraph, always rhythmically fresh and flexible. The Prelude (BWV 923) to the Fugue (BWV 951) after Albinoni in B minor might convince us that we are hearing a newly minted improvisation, and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, BWV 903, which closes the recital is played with exciting panache and vigour, but Peter Sykes never overreaches the expressive and technical potential of his instrument.
A concern which inevitably arises when playing J. S. Bach’s music on a clavichord is the choice of appropriate instrument. We can make informed guesses as to what Bach would have chosen, but the accidents of survival – or, in this instance, non-survival – mean we have no way of knowing what kind of clavichord would have represented an ideal to Bach. Whatever this Schiedmayer clavichord’s inherent qualities, I wondered if such a late instrument from a workshop known for the production of pianos would really prove to be a satisfactory medium for works written so many decades earlier. Any such doubts were quickly dispelled. Under Peter Sykes’s hands the instrument has exemplary clarity, an attractive but not idiosyncratic tone quality, just the right balance between sustain and definition, excellent balance between treble and bass – in short, all the qualities needed for J. S. Bach’s music.